BOSTON — If a base is open in front of Jorge Mateo, get ready. He’s running.
The speedy shortstop has been leading the Orioles’ record-setting pace for stolen bases. Baltimore’s 10 steals heading into Sunday’s series finale against the Boston Red Sox are the most by any team through its first two games of a season since at least 1901. Mateo is responsible for four of those swiped bags, one of only eight players with multiple steals in each of his team’s first two games and one of two in the 21st century.
Major League Baseball introduced larger bases this season — going from 15 inches-by-15 inches to 18-by-18 — thus shrinking the distance between them. And anytime Mateo has set foot on one of those bigger bases, he’s taken off to try to reach the next.
“I really love it,” Mateo said. “You gotta be smart. Be healthy this season, just be smart, get on base to take advantage of it.”
Last season, Mateo led the American League with 35 steals, one ahead of Orioles center fielder Cedric Mullins as they became the first teammates to finish first and second in the AL since 1971. The race is back on this year.
“Every year, we’re competing,” Mateo said.
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Mateo ranked ninth among qualified runners in average sprint speed last season at 30.1 feet per second, according to Statcast. Mullins ranked outside the top 100 at an above-average 28.4 feet per second, but he’s still almost managed to keep up with Mateo. He has three steals through the two games, one coming behind Mateo on a double steal in Saturday’s second inning. In taking third base, Mateo took a cleat to his right hand, causing multiple cuts and spasms. But he got the hand taped near his index finger between innings and remained in the game.
The injury literally did not slow Mateo down. After he reached on a run-scoring fielder’s choice in the fourth, he stole second. Mullins followed with a three-run home run.
The pair combined for only one steal attempt in spring training, a successful one from Mateo, but that was largely to keep them healthy for the regular season, manager Brandon Hyde said.
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“I don’t need Mateo to work on stolen base jumps in first few weeks of spring training,” he said. “When we have an opportunity to run, we’re gonna run. We have some guys that can run, got two of the better guys in the baseball, for me, in Cedric and Jorgie.”
With steals also from Austin Hays, Ryan McKenna and Adam Frazier, the Orioles have not been caught on their first 10 attempts. In many cases, the Red Sox have not even attempted a throw. The 10 steals are the most in a two-game span in Baltimore history.
MLB hoped the larger bases would improve player safety while adding more action on the base paths. In Thursday’s opening day games, base-stealers across the league were successful on 21 of 23 tries, compared to five steals in nine attempts in 2022. The 21 steals were the most on an opening day since 1907.
The bigger bases aren’t the only rule change benefiting runners, though. The sport’s introduction of the pitch clock could also introduce ways for runners to time up pitchers to get a good jump, and there are also new limits on pickoff attempts. If a pitcher has more than two unsuccessful pickoff tries, the runner automatically advances.
“Pitchers are hamstrung a little bit on what they can do,” Hyde said. “I think just around the league, you’re gonna see stolen bases go up.”
Hays said that although players such as Mateo and Mullins have been able to “go right back to doing exactly what they were doing last year,” those like him who have been less frequent thieves will in time learn how to capitalize on the clock.
“It’s just still in the beginning stages right now of seeing how we can take advantage of it,” he said. “We’ll just see as the season progresses if there’s any areas that we can expose. That’s definitely going to be a big part of our team, trying to find those things.”